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Using a Developmental Perspective to Design Toddler-friendly Learning Spaces

During toddlerhood, young children are interested in moving their bodies, connecting with their peers, and finding new ways to assert their independence. This stage of development is all about exploration, as children discover how they relate to others and the world around them. As educators, we can use our understanding of toddler development to create an engaging, developmentally-appropriate curriculum and learning environment for the children in our care. 

Toddler Development

During toddlerhood, children are growing and changing in new ways every day. During this stage of development, little ones develop strong preferences, find new ways to connect with others, and become increasingly eager to try new things. 

Physical Development

As they begin walking, young children start to feel more confident in their bodies and are eager to try new skills. During this stage of development, they become stronger, faster, and more coordinated. In its website article outlining toddler development milestones, the North Shore University Health System describes the stops and starts of toddler physical development: “Toddlers will quickly master walking and move on to running, jumping and climbing. Around age two, most toddlers will be able to navigate stairs, kick or throw a ball and draw simple lines. During this time, children may still stumble frequently and be accident prone.”

Social-Emotional Development

Independence is a big part of toddlerhood. During this age, little ones are learning who they are, and how they fit into the world around them. At this stage, children start to have strong likes, dislikes, and preferences – and they begin to experiment with expressing their opinions. 

At this age, young children also learn about relationship-building and friendship, as they connect with peers in new ways. ZERO TO THREE’s article on toddler social development explains, “Two-year-olds are (also) capable of empathy— understanding the feelings of others. You might see a child comfort a peer who is hurt or even cry when he sees another child who is upset. At the same time, toddlers still love to say ‘No!’ and struggle with resolving conflicts with friends. Children develop more advanced social play skills, such as sharing and turn-taking, over time as they near age 3 and beyond.” 

Cognitive Development

During toddlerhood, children’s thinking and reasoning become increasingly complex. Children this age start to understand how items relate to each other and fit in together. This is why simple puzzles and activities that encourage sorting by shape are especially fun for toddlers. According to Healthy Children (from the American Academy of Pediatrics), you might notice a toddler focusing on different items for longer periods of time, as they learn to play in more complex ways: “Instead of drifting randomly from one toy to another, he may first put a doll to bed and then cover it up. Or he may pretend to feed several dolls, one after the other.” 

Setting Up Your Classroom 

1. Provide room for movement. In a toddler classroom, it is important to have open space that gives children plenty of room to move their bodies. This might include a large rug or mat where you meet for circle time, toddler-friendly ramps and stairs, or even a few large pillows and beanbags. All of these items will encourage movement, which helps children practice important motor skills and develop muscle strength.

2. Make safety a top priority. While toddlers enjoy opportunities for movement, their motor and coordination skills are still developing. As a result, it is not uncommon for little ones this age to fall over when they attempt to run, jump, and climb. Consider safety in your classroom by avoiding items with sharp edges. Lay out rugs and soft items to break potential falls. It’s also important to be aware of choking hazards since toddlers can be inclined to put toys and other items into their mouths. Avoid offering small objects that could be unsafe for young children. 

3. Provide opportunities to practice independence. During toddlerhood, young children are becoming more interested in doing things on their own, such as getting themselves dressed and serving their own food at mealtimes. Provide opportunities for practicing independence by keeping children’s personal items where they can access them on their own. For example, keep their water bottles in a spot where they can help themselves when they’re thirsty. Keep hats and jackets within reach so they can practice putting them on by themselves before going outside. 

You might also arrange the classroom with various toys at the children’s level so that they can access them without the help of an adult. This allows the children to choose the types of items they are interested in exploring and to initiate their own play. 

4. Select materials that spark curiosity and playful exploration. Because toddlers are learning so many new skills at once, it is important to offer a variety of materials to create a range of opportunities for exploration and play. Examples of toddler-friendly toys and materials include: 

  • Board books. Little ones love to read stories with their caregivers, but they are still developing the cognitive and motor skills that are required to care for delicate paper pages. Board books (made from cardboard) encourage early literacy skills and are also strong enough to be handled by toddlers, eliminating concerns about torn pages. 

  • Sensory toys. Offer toddlers toys and materials with a variety of textures, such as soft stuffed animals, moldable playdough, and squishy finger paints. These provide great opportunities for sensory exploration and encourage toddlers to practice motor skills. 

  • Open-ended materials. Items like blocks, legos, and baskets can be used by the children in your care in a variety of ways. These items, sometimes referred to as loose parts, encourage creativity and allow children to try new things.

5. Incorporate dramatic play. According to ZERO TO THREE, dramatic play supports toddler social-emotional development. “As two-year-olds, children really begin to play interactively with their peers. You will also see a real explosion in pretend play, a critical aspect of children’s development. Pretend play builds language, thinking, and social skills when children take on roles and develop their own ideas and stories.” Keep a dress-up supply of scarves, hats, bags, and other clothing items that are easy for toddlers to take on and off. This gives children an opportunity to practice dressing skills while they enjoy pretend play. 

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